Get It In Writing

I just read an article that posed the question, Do You Need A Collaboration Agreement?

And the answer is…

Boy-howdy. 

Always. Every time. Sooner rather than later.

We know we need written agreements when we’re working with big companies or when there’s money on the line, but the stickiest problems can happen when you’re working with friends or on spec. Why?

Because everyone thinks their contribution is the most valuable. 

And that’s cool. The entertainment industry is all about collaboration; you simply can’t make a movie or television show without a small army. Everyone’s contribution can be supremely valuable. But if you don’t nail down your expectations on both sides and get it in writing, you’re in for trouble.

Just sitting down and hashing out what you expect can save you a world of grief. While you will all be astounded at what each has taken for granted, there are a minimum of three things you must discuss:

What exactly are each of you contributing to the project? If you’re writing, are they setting up meetings? How many and where? In what time frame? Are they raising the financing? How much? 

What are you each getting out of the project? What credits? How much will you be paid, by whom and when? 

What happens when something goes wrong? Who has final creative say? How do you dissolve the partnership? And — this is absolutely critical — who owns the project? If it’s a pitch, can one of you pitch it without the other? If it’s a finished script, who owns the copyright? How long is your agreement in effect?

I’ve found ownership to be the single biggest point of contention. Some people feel that if they have the initial germ of an idea, they should own half — or even all — of a script written by their partner. I once worked with a producer who delayed signing our contract because I might die in childbirth, and then where would that leave her? This, by the way, was after I had already turned in the script (see? I should have gotten the contract signed before I started writing, learn from my mistakes!) She just wanted to make sure I was still around for the polish. Again, this is an expectation that needs to be handled before you write 110 pages — or have a baby.

From bitter experience, I have developed one ironclad rule: I’m either paid up front for a script or it’s crystal clear that I own the property. When I write on spec for myself, I register the copyright. If I want to gift a friend with a scene for their reel or even a short, well, that’s a gift. I expect nothing in return.

But when I do expect something, I learned the hard way to get it in writing.